France with friends

 

This post is a bit disjointed as I lost a few paragraphs about cycling up and down the Rhone with my friend Paul and I can’t be bothered to re-write them.  Anyway, here’s what I have left, mainly about visiting the Tour de France

Without a doubt, there are multiple benefits to cycle touring with someone else.  There’s the obvious practicalities like being able to leave your bike outside a supermarket without fearing some desperate thief will nab it and/or all of your gear (which is just hanging off your racks totally unsecured) and taking turns out on the road when you’re riding into a block headwind.  Less tangible is the moral support, company and reassurance.  Horrible weather is easier to laugh at with a friend than alone.  Napping on park benches suddenly seems selfish and indulgent though.

Paul and I met another mutual friend Tom and his mate Bill in the park, checked in to our laughably poky ultra-budget ‘hotel’ (which felt like a Channel ferry compartment but was cheap) and went out for a few beers in Orange to share travelling tales and mentally prepare for the following day.  Groups of likeminded roadies were doing the same thing, but they seemed to be on different itineraries, as they were all lycra-clad and accompanied by their bikes at 9pm.

The obligatory bike-checks before setting off in the morning actually caused more problems than they prevented.  This time it was Paul’s turn to experience puncture/valve problems, putting him into a panic as combined with Bastille-opening hours they could easily scupper our plans.  They recurred throughout the day but mercifully stopped by the time we reached the mountain.

Mt Ventoux is a legendary tour climb, unlike all others in its relative remoteness from other mountains, ‘moonscape’ peak and lack of switchbacks to ease the gradient.  Unfortunately, the equally-egendary Mistral wind was blowing and hence the stage was shortened by 6km.  Gusts at the top had already caused hypothermia and toppled caravans but we hoped we would be able to push our way through, or that maybe the people in charge would be less cautious about fans than pro-riders.

After a leisurely 25 miles we arrived at the packed-out village at the base of the climb and gathered our wits (and fresh fruit juice and inner tubes) before setting off.  The crowds were immense.  Like a middle-class music festival on a mountainside.  The road is closed off a few days in advance to allow people to get situated in their camper vans, chalk the road with their idols’ names and drink Campari until they forget how rank it is, but most people arrive just a few hours before the race and schlep their way to the top en masse.

I was jealous of Tom and Bill on their road bikes, wanting as I did to put in a respectable time for Strava, but needn’t have been.  The sheer volume of other cyclists and pedestrians lugging coolboxes and camping chairs up the road made progress pretty slow, especially on the lower slopes.  It’s impossible to quantify the effect of the ‘amiable’ fans’ support though.  Deprived of entertainment, they loudly cheer anyone who stands out (and many who don’t) and were particularly impressed by anyone daring to wheelie or ‘attack’ their riding companions.  I obliged with both of course.  After months on the road, and several climbs as long and possibly harder than this, I felt great but neither Tom nor Bill had climbed anything like this and their enthusiasm was infectious.  It was an amazing experience and I can see myself visiting more Tour stages on climbing days.

The crowds thickened and got rowdier as we got nearer to the foreshortened finish line and eventually we were forced from our bikes by well-drilled and polite Gendarmerie.  Road closed.  No chance to get near the top.  But how about a refreshing beverage at a hastily cobbled-together bar?

After a frigid hour and a tepid beer we decided to descend to warmer climes and managed to find a sunny spot opposite another bar selling E3 cans.  In no time at all the peloton arrived and the aesthetically-challenged but ever-attacking Chris Froome chose this spot to break free from Nairo Quintana. ’ve always wanted to be stood near the decisive moment on a tour stage and this was it! Richie Porte was right on Froome’s wheel and the other GC contenders came through in drips and drabs before burnt out domestiques (riders who ride hard earlier in the stage to support their team leaders) and finally the grupetto (sprinters and other heavyweights who just want to survive the mountain stages and hence ride together at a more leisurely pace).  A few minutes later we heard excited French commentary from the bar’s TV and gradually figured out that Froome and Porte had crashed into a motorbike and Froome was running up the mountain without a bike!

Some obliging Aussies filled in the details and later on we would catch up with the amazing video footage.  He may not be the most charismatic person or stylish rider but Froome is bloody great.  Wiggins or Nibali would have had screaming tantrums if that had happened to them, and neither of them would have been attempting to out sprint Sagan a few days earlier.  Fans love characters (good or bad) and style I guess but Froome is now without a doubt the most entertaining GC rider that I can remember.

After a nerve-wracking descent (caused by huge crowds and crosswinds rather than the road itself) and a fast-paced ride back to the hotel we were all knackered but satisfied and said our farewells as Tom and Bill had to find a campsite.

The following day Paul and I tried to ride north to watch the time trial stage, but the wind was too strong.  We struggled to cover six miles in one hour and eventually realised we wouldn’t make it if we didn’t turn back to catch the train.  After we did so, Paul decided to head on to Lyon to avoid faff and so I was back on my own.

It wasn’t spectacular but it was an interesting experience to visit the time trial start.  You can get really close to the riders and the town was bustling.  I enjoyed a few beers and found a bar to watch the rest of the stage with more Aussies and Americans. Unless something very strange happens in the next few days, those two stages were probably decisive in this tour.

I’m writing this from Grenoble, waiting for another friend to arrive and anticipating a few days of eating and drinking.  Touring Europe is not exactly exotic or adventurous, but being able to meet friends from home more than makes up for it!

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